Précis - Recently released statistics from Musicmetrics show the illegal downloading habits of the world by location.

What? Musicmetrics has used a tracking system to obtain anonymised data about downloads from the BitTorrent network.  The statistics show there were 43 million downloads from BitTorrent in the UK in the first half of 2012, which divides into 33 million albums and 10 million singles, and which is second only to the US, with 96 million downloads.

So What? Musicmetrics' statistics highlight the scale of illegal downloading, and demonstrate the challenge that faces the music industry in coming to terms with the ready access to illegal downloads that technology has afforded consumers.  The sheer volume of illegal downloads is striking - Musicmetrics' statistics suggest that more than twice as many albums were downloaded illegally in the first half of 2012 than were bought legally through digital outlets such as iTunes.

At a time when serious attention is being paid to the UK's digital economy, there have been attempts to quantify the impact that these illegal downloads are having.  The 43 million downloads in the UK would translate to around £500 million worth of legitimate sales, although it is questionable whether people would necessarily have bought the music that they illegally downloaded if they were unable to illegally download it.  Ed Sheeran was the most popular artist to be illegally downloaded in the UK, with his debut album being downloaded an average of 55,512 times every month, or around 333,000 times in total, in the first half of 2012.  By comparison, legal downloads of Sheeran's album passed the 250,000 mark in August, and it is now the second biggest selling UK digital download of all time (behind Adele's 21).  Although pirated downloads still vastly outnumber legal ones, there has been solid growth in the legal digital sales market, which now accounts for 34% of the total albums market.    

The release of this report follows various efforts from the music industry to take action against illegal downloading.  In the UK, the most notable action so far has been the ruling from the High Court earlier this year that ISPs must block access to the Pirate Bay, a website which hosts links to download pirated music and videos.  The effectiveness of this action was widely questioned, as mechanisms such as proxy browsers allow for the block to be easily circumvented, and Matt Mason, executive director at BitTorrent now comments that

"These figures show for the first time that blocking the Pirate Bay had zero effect on piracy.  It's short-sighted to think that we can simply tell people to stop and they will...The challenge is building the right business models on top of the technology".

Gregory Mead, the chief executive of Musicmetrics, points out that "The challenge for copyright holders is to find ways to monetise music files torrented online". The fact that file-sharing cannot realistically be fought will not be new to the music industry - even at the time that action was taken against the Pirate Bay, it was widely acknowledged that this was an attempt to highlight to downloaders that piracy is illegal, rather than a genuine attempt to cut off sources of pirated music.  The challenge for the music industry - to harness and monetise the digital downloads business - remains.

The Musicmetrics statistics also break down downloading by geographical location.  Per person, Manchester has the highest rates of illegal downloads in the UK, followed by Nottingham and Southampton.  It is noticeable that illegal downloads are most prolific in areas with fast broadband connections.  In Wales (Cardiff excepted), piracy rates are as low as broadband speeds - in Llanelli, only 1,581 illegal downloads were recorded each month.  However, in Yeovil, which has a similar population size to Llanelli, but far faster broadband connections, there are around 4,259 downloads a month. The Musicmetrics report also concludes that, globally, piracy is lower in areas where people have access to a legal means of downloading music, such as Spotify or iTunes.  Mr Mead comments that this effect is because "people have greater access to music they want via legitimate means".

The report also raises wider questions as to where the music industry should focus its revenue raising efforts in the future.  Ed Sheeran, the most illegally downloaded artist in the UK, was unconcerned by Musicmetrics' statistics, commenting that although people are downloading his album without paying, they are still paying £18 a time to come and see him in concert.  This raises the possibility of sections of the music industry beginning to treat albums in the way that they treat music videos - i.e., as freely available promotional material for more lucrative revenue streams, such as tours and merchandise.  Indeed, there are already artists from whom income from touring represents the bulk of their income.  According to the US trade publication Billboard, U2 were the second highest earning pop artists of 2011, despite the fact that they did not release any new material in that year - their earnings of £20 million were largely because of their "360" tour, which was seen by more then seven million people.

Finally, one anomaly worth noting in Musicmetrics' statistics is that Lana Del Ray, whose debut album is the largest legally selling album of 2012 so far, does not even appear on the list of the top 20 most illegally downloaded artists, raising the possibility of flaws in Musicmetrics' data. Alternatively, this may show that Lana has an unusually honest fan base.